21 February 2013

What’s it like to be a small holder

Most of us have visions of what it is to be a farmer: driving a big combine, baling hay, loading a hundred cattle into stock trailers and driving them to auction, getting up every two hours to check the cows during calving season, and so on. These images are quite real for many farmers, including a lot of my neighbours.

A small farm, like ours, though, is very different. The modern definition of the word farmer doesn’t even seem to apply to us: we don’t make a living doing this. We do raise our own meat, have chickens that give us eggs, and maintain a garden and pastures. What we do is similar to the way people farmed a hundred years ago, when more families had a bit of land and just about everyone had a garden out back and a few chickens in the yard. I usually use the word small holder to describe what I am, because calling myself a farmer would confuse a lot of people and upset many of those who are full time modern style farmers.

A small holding is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “an area of land that is used for farming but which is much smaller than a typical farm”. Yup, that’s us. We have about six acres on which you’ll find a house, a creek, some fenced pastures, a couple of sheds, a small barn and a chicken house.

I thought I’d start out this series of posts by describing the routine of daily winter chores – later on, I’ll explain more about our infrastructure, the seasonal ‘big jobs’, and what the summer chores look like, but this is what we’re doing daily right now, so it seems like a good place to begin.

In the winter, the animals who live here need to be cared for every day. The chores are done twice a day – this year we’ve shifted to a schedule that has chores happening around 9:30 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon. This way, even at the darkest time of the winter, it’s still light when you go out to do chores, and the time fits reasonably well into the other schedules we have to maintain (minimal though they are). If we’re going to be away for the day, we’ll just put out extra feed the night before, or have things ready to do a quick top up before we leave or when we get back home, so it’s not like someone absolutely has to be outside twice a day … that’s the baseline, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

So, let’s just walk through daily chores.

In the morning, I put on my warm chore clothes (if it’s really cold that includes insulated coveralls plus my coat, hat, mitts and a scarf) and head outdoors with Caleb the border collie cross. I walk to the quad which is parked next to the hay bales and pull the tarp off, spreading the tarp out on the ground so I can load it with hay. Using the pitchfork that stays near the hay bale, I unload enough to fill the feeders for the sheep and cows and pile it on the tarp, which is tied to the back of the quad and serves as a hay trailer – it slides easily on the snow, and since it’s at ground level, I don’t have to lift the hay, just peel it off the bale and slide it onto the tarp. Once the tarp is loaded up, I start the quad and drive up the hill to where the feeders are (in the early winter, there are bales up there near the feeders, but by this time of year those are used up and we’re having to haul the hay a bit of a distance from the drop off point to the feeders). Loading hay takes about five minutes, twice that if it’s a new bale and I have to deal with cutting the bale strings off.

At the top of the hill I park and drag the edge of the tarp closer to the feeders and tip it over. Using the pitchfork that lives near the feeders (note that we have two, one at the bales and one at the feeder, it makes life simpler) I load the hay from the ground up into the feeders, checking to see that all the sheep and cows are coming to eat and that nobody looks ill or has gotten themselves stuck in a fence or tangled in bale string overnight. That takes about five minutes, maybe less, unless you have a crisis of some kind to deal with but if you stay on top of things, usually everything is okay.

Driving back down the hill on the quad, I stop at the dog feeder and load up their dish with six scoops of dog food from the garbage bin that sits beside their sheltered feed spot (the guardian dogs have a little ‘house’ that they can walk into to eat: it keeps their food from getting rained on and gives them a spot out of the wind to chow down). Pour one extra scoop on the roof of the feed house for the cats, who are sitting there waiting for me. Three minutes.

Next stop is the edge of the house, where I park the quad and take the collapsible bucket (which is stored on the tray on the front of the quad) to the water outlet and fill it up for the chickens. Trudge over to the chicken run, tip their water bucket upside down and stomp on it to knock the ice out (it’s a flexible rubber dish, specifically designed so it can be stomped on to clear it in the winter) then flip it back over and pour the water in. Get a scoop of grain from the garbage bin that sits next to the chicken coop and pour it in their food dish inside, double check that there aren’t any eggs in the nest boxes (there aren’t usually any this early, but if someone laid an egg late the day before, sometimes you can get it before it freezes … frozen eggs are treats for the guardian dogs). Checking on the chickens is maybe another three or four minutes.

Eyeball the water trough – it should have enough water since yesterday, but it’s always possible that the breaker flipped and the thing’s frozen over, or that it  has emptied out sooner than expected. Usually water doesn’t need to be dealt with until afternoon, so we’ll assume that’s the case right now. That means we are done, just need to park the quad and cover it back up, and head inside.

Afternoon chores are identical to morning chores, with the addition of water. The hose is stored inside (because otherwise it freezes) so it gets grabbed on the way out the door. Load up the tarp and drive partway to the feeders with the load of hay, stopping at the edge of the house. Climb off the quad and take the hose to the tap, hook it up to the quick connect and walk up to the barnyard, laying down loops of hose as you go, dropping the end of the hose in the trough. Head back to the tap, turn on the water, and continue with feeding: by the time you’re done feeding everyone and checking on the chickens, the water trough should be full. Chickens don’t need water again in the afternoon, as they’ll be going to sleep as soon as it’s dark, but there are probably eggs now, so collect the eggs in the bucket and set them on the quad while you turn off the water and wind up the hose. Drive the quad to it’s parking space, cover it back up, take the eggs in the house, rinse them off, and put them in the fridge. Feed the inside pets, hang up your coat and hat, and you’re done for the day.

It’s about fifteen to twenty minutes, twice a day – a little longer when you have to peel a new bale, a little less when you can grab the core of the bale and dump it over the fence for the cows to munch on at leisure. Note that this can also be done without the quad – a human being can haul the tarp laden with hay (not quite as fully loaded, so two loads may be necessary) and all the other jobs are just as easily accomplished on foot – it’s not that far from the house to the barnyard. The quad is lovely to have, though, as it saves me a lot of energy … I only have so much to go around, and when I can conserve some, I am happy to do so.

So, that’s a winter day in the life of a small holder. More on this series shortly.


  1. Ooooh, that's a good post. It's nice to see how my simple chores compare. Basically I just have the chicken water (love the tip about the rubber water container) which I carry as warm water from the house, feed, and scratch in the morning, and Jenn collects the eggs in the afternoon. Who knows what next winter's chores will look like!

  2. The rubber feed/water tubs are great - just get one of the flat low ones that you can stomp to dump the ice out. And carrying water in a bucket from the house (or a jug) is easier than carrying it in one of the rubber dishes, their sides are too low and it sloshes! (Yeah, how do I know this?)

    When we have to carry a lot of water from point A to point B and don't have a hose (it happens), we use the big blue water jugs, like for water coolers. They have a spot you can grab onto them and if you cap 'em then they don't spill! You can even fill two of them and put them on a sled and tow it to where you need it. We haven't needed to do this since we sorted out some of the watering headaches, but we used to haul water that way all winter! Rolling up the hose and bringing it in is way easier. :)

  3. Oh, and if you are doing any plumbing work, install hot and cold water at one of the outside taps. It's NICE to be able to get warm water outside when you need it!


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